May 30th, 2008
Commercials Cause Concern in the Virtual Barbie World
By Jonathan Birchall
Financial Times Deutschland
BarbieGirls.com is going VIP. The website associated with Mattel’s Barbie dolls - the world’s most popular toy - introduced a paid subscription section, offering users access to an improved version of its virtual playground.
The site, launched just a year ago, allows users to create and dress their own online avatars, earning and using virtual “B Bucks” money. With more than 11m girls registered, BarbieGirls is about to turn into a new revenue source for Mattel. Chuck Scothon, head of Mattel’s girl brands, says the site is attracting girls in the eight-to-15 age group who may be outgrowing Barbie herself.
“The online world and the content that girls engage with [is] very much a new toy,” he says. “This online content is a great way to play fashion and beauty and hair play, but doing it in a fun and relevant way for an older girl.”
The Barbie brand’s online makeover is one of the many signs of a developing boom in online worlds and social networking sites aimed at children as young as five, which spread to the toy industry three years ago.
In 2005 Ganz, a Canadian company that makes soft toys and greetings cards, took the industry by storm with the launch of Webkinz, fluffy animal toys with codes to link to online versions. Webkinz users operate in a luridly coloured children’s version of Linden Lab’s muchdiscussed Second Life adult world, making virtual purchases of accessories with “Kinz Cash”, engaging in controlled chat with other participants and playing online games.
An integrated virtual world
Webkinz.com has been joined by Hasbro’s LittlestPetShop.com, Build-a-Bear Workshops’ Buildabearville.com and, this year, by Disney’s Clickables toys, which will be linked to its planned Pixiehollow.com virtual world.
At the same time, US media companies are expanding their range of virtual worlds linked to their children’s television shows and online properties. MTV’s Nickelodeon recently announced plans to enhance its Nicktropolis site, built around its TV characters, and to create the “World of Neopia” for NeoPets.com, one of the most successful social and gaming sites targeting children aged eight to 17.
Disney, whose sites attracted more than 27m users in March, has created a management group to focus on virtual worlds and online communities. Last year it bought the Club Penguin social networking and virtual world site (slogan: “Waddle around and meet new friends!") for $350m.
Virtual Worlds Management, which tracks the industry, estimates that there are more than 100 youth-focused virtual worlds either live or in development, with 59 of them aimed at children under seven. As the industry rushes ahead, child advocate groups are questioning whether parents and other authorities have fully grasped the explosion in online play for the very young.
“Companies are targeting ever younger children and there is a bigger push to get even preschoolers online and engaged in social networking sites and virtual worlds,” says Susan Linn, of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). “While virtual worlds can be a creative endeavour for teenagers, there are real problems about their impact on younger children.”
Potential threat from sexual predators
In the US and elsewhere, public discussion of virtual worlds has been dominated by potential threats to children from sexual predators and from violent images in online games. The media and toy companies have responded with an emphasis on site safety, with limits on what messages a user’s avatar can send.
But Sara Grimes, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, says there has been very little attention paid to the commercialisation and marketing elements of digital play, including the collection of data that can be used for advertising linked to online behaviour. “It is easy to get distracted from these issues. The sites also play on that by promoting themselves as safe haven and tapping into parental concerns,” she says.
Last December the CCFC launched a letter-writing campaign against Ganz after its Webkinz site - previously free of advertisements - started carrying ads for DreamWorks’ Bee Movie and Fox’s Alvin and the Chipmunks . The advertising included offering children’s avatars virtual clothing such as bee suits and the hoodies worn by Alvin and his chipmunk friends.
Ganz now says it “recognises that some parents are against advertising, particularly those with very young children”, and “will very soon be adding the ability for parents to turn off ads from our promotional partners” - although not ads for its own products. It also says it will not allow the virtual products sold on its site to be branded by advertisers - a reference to the kind of immersive advertising techniques represented by the bee and chipmunk clothing.
Immersive techniques bump up against voluntary industry guidelines that require online advertising on children’s sites to be clearly marked as such, although the industry’s monitoring body says it has seen no cases in which its online guidelines have been breached.
Advertising to children
Time Warner’s Cartoon Network children’s sites now launch with a general warning that the site has “pages and content that may include advertising”. Mattel’s Mr Scothon says BarbieGirl.com carries no third-party advertising. But the site has promoted its own products, with girls able to visit an online cinema where they are rewarded with B Bucks for watching Barbie DVD film trailers.
As for similarly “immersive” third-party advertising, Mr Scothon says that “in the event we were ever to consider something like that - because the space is rapidly changing - we will make sure that any decisions we make are both validated and confirmed by both the parents and the children.”
The BarbieGirls site is currently expanding a “just for parents” section focused largely on online safety - perhaps the most comprehensive effort by a company to make parents aware of the issues and give them more engagement in the content of the sites.
But Ms Linn argues that there is a need for a broader discussion about the merits of virtual worlds, particularly for younger children, who are entering a world that is “almost completely predetermined”.
She says: “The whole goal [on] most of these sites is to earn money in order to buy things for your avatar. I think we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which children really absorb values from the toys we give them and the stories we tell them.”